Train accidents happen.
It’s why so many independent bodies exist to drive the rail industry towards constant improvement. But even with the less than 16 accidents per million miles travelled in 2014 reported by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), every incident carries the possibility of loss of life, disruption of sensitive environments, and staggering clean-up costs.
In the same year, 39 percent of all accidents were attributed to human error, including 33 percent of all derailments and 81 percent of all collisions. Human error remains the highest single source of accidents for the past ten years, and could continue to hold this ominous title for the foreseeable future if nothing more is done to improve rail safety. The recent Amtrak tragedy in Philadelphia, which killed 8 people and injured more than 200, serves as an ill-fated example. The train derailed after speeding around a curve at more than twice the allowed speed, throwing the train off of the track . The unfortunate truth of these accidents, which cost 280 lives and over $300 million in property damage, could have been prevented with the implementation of technology, which has been on the market for a number of years called Positive Train Control or PTC.
In a general sense, PTC is a predictive system which uses sensors and GPS or similar technology to stop a train before certain types of accidents occur. Several products exist in varying complexity, but all are designed to comply with temporary speed restrictions, protect rail worker wayside safety, and prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, and movement through a switch in the improper position. With this sophisticated system in place, the train is able to receive information about its location and where it can safely travel, allowing the PTC system to intervene when an engineer is unable or unaware of the need to act.
The benefits of PTC extend beyond public safety. By interpreting signals from other trains on the PTC line, the technology will be able to safely reduce travel time by allowing trains to operate closer together, much like a subway.
When Amtrak’s efforts to develop a PTC system stalled in 2011, there was no sense of urgency within the rail industry to solve the problem. And in the case of the Philadelphia crash, Amtrak was just a few months away from being able to implement PTC systems on their commuter lines when the derailment occured. Senior Vice President of the telecommunications interest group Public Knowledge Harold Feld laments that “The real tragedy is they ended up running out of time, and the delay mattered.”
A 45-year long campaign by the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) and the continuance of these human-error fueled accidents spurred inclusion of a PTC mandate in the “Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008”, which, requires the installation of PTC on every Class I railroad (Any carrier operating with revenue over $250 Million) hosting passenger trains or transporting hazardous material, with some exceptions, by December 31, 2015.
While this seems like a win for transportation safety, there is no cause for celebration quite yet.
Despite relaying the federal requirements to all affected parties, only 18 percent of major freight railroad mileage and 39 percent of locomotives are on track to comply with the 2015 deadline. Railroads have continually resisted PTC, arguing that the costs of implementation are too high, which outweigh the benefits by a significant margin. The Association of American Railroads (AAR) is actively advocating for an extension of the 2015 deadline, arguing the $13 billion required to install this system nationwide is too high, especially at a time when ground transit systems continue to receive less and less federal funding. By failing to resolve human error with now available resources, the rail industry is indirectly proliferating these preventable accidents, which will continue to occur.
Until PTC systems can overcome the industry gridlock, and is implemented on every appropriate train and track, alternative sources of accident reduction must be put in place. Having a second set of eyes in the locomotive cab may significantly reduce human factor accidents by holding employees accountable to one another.
The bottom line is that this novel technology will always exist. In an industry, which has historically been the frontrunner for budding technology, it remains as important as ever to continue innovating and improving so that the safety of all parties involved can be ensured. Today, that improvement means PTC.